A particularly fascinating artist to have worked in Ilkley is Andy Goldsworthy OBE. One of Britain’s most respected contemporary artists, Goldsworthy is seen primarily as a sculptor and is represented all over the world. I say primarily a sculptor but his work encompasses many things – photography, sculpture, performance, environmental conservation, writing and sketching – which makes investigating his work exciting and challenging.
Much of Goldsworthy’s work is temporary – it is created with the assistance of nature and purely natural tools – sticks, rocks, ice, water and even Goldsworthy’s own saliva and teeth. Saliva makes a good glue for sticking ice pieces together, teeth are employed to break, cut and mark, and works are shaped, sculpted and formed using found objects provided by the great outdoors. Once completed, a piece is photographed and recorded, sometimes over time and in different conditions – and the work is left to decay at its own rate. Goldsworthy’s art is very often born of the land to which it then returns.
Andy Goldsworthy was born in Cheshire in 1956 and studied art at Bradford College from 1974 – 75, then at Preston Polytechnic until 1978. After finishing his studies he lived in Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria producing work that was to inform much of his later career. Since then he has worked in such exciting settings as the North Pole, Japan, the Australian outback and the USA.
Andy Goldsworthy in Ilkley
During the year 1980 Goldsworthy lived in Ilkley and spent a lot of time by the River Wharfe, in Middleton Woods and on Ilkley Moor. He explored the landscape and experimented with water, snow, sticks and leaves in particular, materials which he has continued to work with throughout his career and which he has come to understand in a way few of us can.
“I understand snow and leaves and feathers and mud and sticks and stones a little bit like the way a carpenter will understand wood, because he’s worked with it.”1
Here we can see the beginnings of a lifetime’s curiosity about nature and place, about growth and natural processes which were the starting point for so many of his later pieces. The Ilkley works were not commissions made for someone or some place – they were/are records of a burst of activity in which Goldsworthy immersed himself in the landscape in order to try and understand the elements, material and weather conditions which shape our environment. Of the early years of his career Goldsworthy wrote:
“When I began working outside, I had to establish instincts and feelings for Nature … I needed a physical link before a personal approach and relationship could be formed. I splashed in water, covered myself in mud, went barefoot and woke with the dawn.”2
This sense of wonder and curiosity comes to the fore when looking at Goldworthy’s art or reading about his methods. The joy of experience is akin to the childlike interest in the natural world that we all too soon lose touch with. We are made to reassess the importance of now, of feeling and using our senses. We get a sense of immediacy – when Goldsworthy (or us) pick up a piece of ice, or a twig, or a tuft of moss, what does it do? It may melt, fall apart – a leaf will decay.
Meaning comes not as much from the final image, which after all is a snapshot in time – it comes from the place and the circumstances which dictate what will happen to the work.
Here we see one of Goldsworthy’s works in which he is documenting an action and what it produces – in this instance a rainbow when the light reflects off the water droplets.
“When I work with a leaf I am working with the sun and the rain and the growth of the tree, the space of the tree, the shadow of the tree. It is not just three inches of leaf: it is the growth and process that I am interested in.”3
Goldsworthy’s talent is to make us look at the everyday in a completely different way. What is a leaf? How does it work? What changes does it undergo? What can be done with it? We see leaves constantly – but how often do we stop to think about their intricacies, their beauty, the sounds they make?
During the late 1970’s and early 1980’s Goldsworthy worked in Middleton Woods producing several leaf works. These pieces, recorded with a camera and often accompanied by diary entries paved the way for further work in which he went on to produce 3D leaf sculptures, often on a grand scale both in Britain and abroad.
Written Comment – Leaf patches. Edges made by finding leaves the same size tearing one in two, spitting underneath and pressing flat on to another
Diary entry: 6th Nov ’80 Ilkley
Walked further up wood.
Windy – wet- elm leaves
dark/wet – made yellow
patch similar to the dark
Goldsworthy’s diary entries are as fascinating as the images – they describe what happened, in what circumstances the piece was produced – and often give a sense of the artist’s feelings in relation to what he was doing. The word “enjoyed” adds a new dimension – surely this is what art is about.
In a 1983 documentary ‘Triangle’ Goldworthy noted in relation to this work;
“I’ve made a lot of work with leaves but I think the most satisfying series of works I have made were bright coloured leaf patches, when you walk through the wood you suddenly catch a very bright green, yellow or red leaf. I picked up a very bright leaf and found more like it, and that involved a lot of searching and looking.”4
What becomes clear when reading about Goldsworthy’s work with leaves is the devotion with which he studies his subjects and the complexity of what he
does. The time involved in producing each work (finding many leaves of one colour for instance) and the persistence required to achieve what he does is incredible.
He talks about the lessons to be learnt from trees – how leaves develop differently depending on where they physically grow on the tree, their architecture and symmetry. Only through making many mistakes has Goldsworthy been able to learn enough about the structural properties of leaves to be able to get his ideas to work.
Written comment – leaf patches made by finding leaves the same size, tearing one in two, spitting underneath and pressing flat onto one another
Diary entry: 7th November, Ilkley
Middleton Woods –
Collected green elm leaves
on the way – took a few
from each tree -the
only place there were any
green – back to wood
– elm leaves on ground
made green patch.
The explanations here highlight two things. Firstly Goldsworthy’s interest in protecting our natural environment, hence his decision to use only a few leaves from each tree presumably so as not to cause much damage. And secondly his commitment to using natural resources – his own saliva provides the glue which sticks the leaves together.
This method is also used in another work produced in Middleton Woods:
Diary entry: 4th November
Underneath Elm tree
Surface leaves – all colours – some newly
found dark leaves-
dark leaf- found light
a more recently fallen leaf
same size – took part
for dark leaf – spat on
underside and “stuck” to
the other leaf – made
dark leaf patch on ground
Written comment: This is an important early work. This was a throw, which produced a work with a strong sense of form without geometry. It was not enough just to throw materials. The touch had to go deeper than that. The result should express or reveal some insight into the space, atmosphere, light, time of the day, the moment, the material”
These two photographs show Goldsworthy on Ilkley Moor. What happens under certain conditions? What is the work made up of? What has gone on around it? In the book Hand to Earth Goldsworthy describes forces of nature as materials you can work with, be they extreme (as when he worked in the Arctic) or not so severe, as here with the wind.
“The atmosphere of any place produces a specific work.”5
The concept of place is ever present in the work of Andy Goldsworthy. Make the work elsewhere and it will turn out completely different. Place the piece indoors in a gallery setting and it’s meaning will change.
“I don’t always work in places that I feel are special.”6
Goldsworthy does not work only in places he likes. What is more important is what he can do there. The great outdoors is his studio and the possibilities infinite. Place is at the same time crucial but unimportant. “Ilkley” matters not. The leaves and grass and woods here do.
Here we see Goldsworthy laying down grass in a line on the moor. This is a deliberate placing of materials as opposed to his earlier throws in which the final piece was decided by the chance direction of the wind and where the grass landed when flung into the air.
“Working in Britain means working close to change: a clear day can soon cloud over, snow melts quickly, a calm morning turns windy. These qualities give urgency and energy to what I do”7
We are often busy complaining about the weather – Goldsworthy’s work stops us in our tracks and asks us to assess anew the incredible variety and potential that the British weather unleashes upon us.
Snow and ice are materials that Goldsworthy continued to work with in great depth for many years after his time in Ilkley, leading him to produce incredible pieces in the Arctic and closer to home in Scotland where he now lives.
Diary Entry; 29th April 1981
Saw last bit of snow from
flat window on Middleton
Collected snow – made ball
Carried into wood – heavy
long way – dripping wet.
Went back to see how
it was getting on -mainly to see it
melt to nothing – as
I was leaving a man
came – I hurried across
got there just in time to see
him kick it in stream.
Didn’t say anything – outside
I forfeit the right of possession
Again the diary comment helps us to understand the work – how it was made, how Goldsworthy felt to see it destroyed – and it raises the interesting question of to whom the art belongs. Outside it belongs to no one, inside a gallery space it is safe, secure, owned.
In contrast to other images of Ilkley we have, Goldsworthy’s works are with us now only thanks to the recording process. We can’t go and see his snowball or his leaf patches (which left to the mercy of the elements naturally melted and decayed) – only photographs of them. Are these photographs artworks as well as the pieces they portray? This is a fascinating question – what constitutes the artwork?
As it turns out, the photograph is as important as the original piece. After all, without it there would now be nothing apart from words and memory.
“Each work grows, stays, decays – integral parts of a cycle which the photograph shows at it’s height, marking the moment when the work is most alive. There is an intensity about a work at it’s peak that I hope is expressed in the image. Process and decay are implicit.”8
“That art should be permanent or impermanent is not the issue. Transience in my work reflects what I find in nature and should not be confused with an attitude towards art generally.” 9
Where to start when writing about an artist? Maybe many of us have an idea about art that like other subjects it can be explained – that it should be explained, and that if we don’t “understand” it, either the person writing about the art has not done a good job or we are not clever enough to understand it.
Reading up on Andy Goldsworthy is a fascinating exercise, and writing down facts about and explanations of his work is hard. Why? Because the more you look at and think about his art, it becomes obvious that very little about it is fixed and that ‘understanding’ is not as important as feeling and questioning.
I hope that this piece has done two things – firstly provided an introduction to Goldsworthy’s art through the images he made in Ilkley, and secondly inspired us to stop and look around at the incredible landscape in which we live.
The photographs used here are copyright Andy Goldsworthy and cannot be reproduced elsewhere without the artist’s permission.
Images reproduced here can be found at www.goldsworthy.cc.gla.ac.uk/ along with many other images of Goldsworthy’s work in different locations. All diary entries and written comments are also taken from this source.
- p166 Hand to Earth, Andy Goldsworthy Sculpture 1976 – 1990, Edited by Terry Friedman and Andy Goldsworthy Thames and Hudson, 2004 From an interview on The Third Ear, BBC Radio, 30th June 1989
- Hand to Earth frontispiece, originally quoted in Rain, 1985, p4
- p167, Hand to Earth, from above radio interview
- Andy Goldsworthy speaking on ‘Triangle’ Border TV, 1983 Source: Andy Goldsworthy Digital Catalogue
- p167, Hand to Earth, from above radio interview
- p168, Hand to Earth, from above radio interview
- Andy Goldsworthy quoted in Andy Goldsworthy, Viking, 1990
- As quote 7
- As quote 7
Many thanks: to Andy Goldsworthy, Jill Hollis and Holly Goldsworthy for their help and advice.
Andy Goldsworthy digital catalogue at www.goldsworthy.cc.gla.ac/uk/
Countryfile, BBC, 19/01/2014
Hand to Earth, Andy Goldsworthy Sculpture 1976 – 1990, Edited by Terry Friedman and Andy Goldsworthy, Thames and Hudson, 2004
Andy Goldsworthy, Viking, 1990